Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How to Build a Scholar (part 2)

[Read Part 1 here.]

"The king's goldsmith once learned to work in flesh"
Leonard Cohen

Research into artificial intelligence (AI) often assumes that it is possible to make an intelligent physical object. (John Pollock calls this "agent materialism".) The basis of this assumption, of course, is that you and I are intelligent physical objects.

But the question of whether an intelligent object (a thinking machine) can be made of something very different than you and I, i.e., something other than flesh and bone, is often not raised at all. It is simply assumed that our intelligence is essentially a "computational" process, which can be simulated by the sort of "processor" we already have in our computers. The problem of "building a person" is the problem of designing a computer program.

Why am I interested in this subject? I promote something I call "writing process reengineering", which is essentially, if with no small amount of irony, scientific management applied to the organization of scholarly labour. I tell people to write every day, at fixed times (like 9 to 12 or 9 to 10) and to sit in front of their computers even if they don't "feel like" they have something to say. I tell them not to wait for inspiration but just to get to work when their writing schedule tells them to write.

Most people understand that I am just offering advice for them to use in their own attempts to build their writing discipline. But some people, at least sometimes, think I am trying to make rules for them. They think I think there is a right and wrong way to work, regardless of whether or not it yields results.

But I always say that a writing a process is something you must work out for yourself. You have to find out what works best for you. And that's the insight in Jonathan's comment to my last post: "We talk about shaping, molding our students, of a scholarly formation. Or Greenblatt's 'self-fashioning.' The human, then, is seen as raw material, the scholar or student or self is fashioned or sculpted out of this material." The important thing to keep in mind is that this "human material", flesh and bone, is not infinitely malleable. You can't make any kind of person out of any kind of body. You probably can't make a scholar out of just anybody.

[Update: Indeed, the point here that you can only ever make a scholar yourself—you can only make a scholar out of your self.]

Ultimately, the problem of "how to build a person" is the problem of how to "fashion a self". There is no such thing as a generic person. In trying to become a scholar, then, you are not just moving parts of yourself around according to "computational" rules. Building a scholar is always a matter of building your discipline. A scholar cannot be built by another scholar, just as a computer scientist cannot build a person. That's because "building a person" cannot happen by any other process than the self-discipline of the flesh.

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